The NHL suspended its season last week amid the COVID-19 outbreak, and with each passing day, the timeframe to award the Stanley Cup before next season continues to shrink.
Every major league that was playing has been suspended, and a number of other hockey leagues around the world have outright canceled their remaining seasons.
And while the health and safety of players, coaches, team staff, arena staff and reporters are more important than awarding a championship, you can bet the NHL is going to exhaust all of its options before deciding to cancel the rest of the 2019-20 season.
Let’s break down the options the league has and how it would work logistically, assuming it doesn’t push back the start of the 2020-21 season.
Cancel rest of the season, including playoffs
Obviously, this is a last resort should this outbreak continue to linger. It’s a tough sell to players and fans to put an end to the season with about 12 games remaining and no playoffs.
The big issue with this option is how do you award the Stanley Cup? Do you give it to the Boston Bruins because they currently are leading the league with 100 points? That seems to be the fairest — it’s how European soccer leagues have been doing it — but you can imagine how much of a letdown it would be to not only have the season be done, but a champion awarded despite having not played a game since mid-March.
Should the COVID-19 situation become extremely dangerous, NHL officials might have to go with this option, but for now, let’s hope they steer clear of anything resembling this.
Cancel rest of regular season, full playoffs
There are a lot of variables involved with this decision. Depending on when the league can resume play, the timing could be pretty close to how it would normally be. If the NHL is targeting May to return, like it seems like the AHL is, that would put the league about two weeks behind schedule, as the playoffs generally begin in mid-April.
However, a May return date could be a very generous assumption. If it gets to mid-May and the playoffs haven’t even started yet, now you’re looking at finishing the playoffs at the beginning of July, right when free agency is supposed to begin. Not to mention, teams would still be playing when the draft takes place at the end of June.
You have to account for arena availability, as well. The NHL season generally is over by early June, so teams don’t have to worry about concerts or other events at the arena if they take place in mid-June or later. Should the playoffs stretch into July, there could be issues with concert dates that have been set months in advance and have very little if any wiggle room.
And lastly, some teams have played 68 games and others have played as many as 71. The New York Islanders, for example, would be out of the playoffs in this scenario but are just one point behind the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have played two more games than the Islanders.
This could be solved by awarding seeds based on points percentage instead of points, but it’s still weird for teams to be playing a different number of games.
Cancel rest of regular season, limited playoffs
Assuming a May or mid-May return, this option might make the most sense. Instead of eight teams from each conference making the playoffs, limit it to the top two teams in each division, or four teams in each conference. Essentially, you’re getting rid of the first round of the playoffs. As the standings are now, the Washington Capitals would play the Philadelphia Flyers in the Metro, and the Boston Bruins would play the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Atlantic. Central would be St. Louis Blues vs. Colorado Avalanche, and Pacific would be Vegas Golden Knights vs. Edmonton Oilers.
The winner of those matchups would play each other, staying within the conference, and the winner from the East plays the winner of the West.
It’s not ideal, as a number of teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Pittsburgh Penguins and Dallas Stars would miss the playoffs. Not to mention, it’s quite the predicament for teams in wild-card spots to suddenly be ousted from playoff contention without a chance to make a late-season push.
If that seems too drastic, you could keep the current playoff format, but make the first round (or maybe first two rounds) a best-of-five series instead of a best-of-seven series. A number of series could be determined in a week and a half or maybe even a week instead of the two weeks it generally takes to decide a series.
Cancel regular season, let everyone in
I first heard this suggested on the Puck Soup podcast, so I can’t take credit for it, and as crazy as it sounds, it certainly would be exciting should the Detroit Red Wings or San Jose Sharks actually make a run.
If you give the Boston Bruins a first-round bye, that would even out the bracket so there isn’t an odd number of series.
Of course, with this scenario, there would be an extra fifth round to decide the Stanley Cup champion, and I just spent the past 800 or so words pointing out how time is not on the NHL’s side.
Unless you were to make it an NCAA tournament-style, single-elimination bracket (and let’s be real, how cool would that be with March Madness canceled?), there’s no feasible way this idea would work and give teams enough time to prepare for next season.
I didn’t even dive into scenarios in which the rest of the regular season and full playoffs happen, but next season is pushed back to accommodate. Then it becomes a situation in which you might have to shorten the 2020-21 season, which deputy commissioner Bill Daly already said wouldn’t happen, or shorten the offseason until you get back on track.
Long story short: It’s going to be a mess regardless of what the NHL decides. The league did the right thing in suspending play, and maybe we have to settle for a canceled season, much like we had to in 2004-05.
It’s not ideal and certainly not fun, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.